Are Christians in exile?

In the lead-up to the recent federal election, the Director of Ministries in the denomination I belong to sent out a letter to the pastors of the denomination that commenced with a pointed parallel between the political and religious circumstances of our day and those of the Israelites addressed in Jeremiah 29, “in exile within an alien and ungodly land”.

“Exile, it seems, is the flavour of the year.”

He was not alone in drawing a comparison of that sort. A few months earlier, the Nexus16 conference (hosted by a Sydney Anglican church and live-streamed to various locations around the country) adopted as its theme “Ministry in Exile”. And in a recent and widely-read blog post, the Western Australian writer, Steve McAlpine, urged readers to brace themselves for the transition into “Exile Stage Two” – a new level of cultural estrangement, in which it begins to dawn on us that we are living not in Athens (as social oddities on the margins of public life, trying to find an entrée into the cultural conversation) but in Babylon (as the objects of scorn and derision, periodically dragged into the town square to be flayed and humiliated).

Exile, it seems, is the flavour of the year. So are Christians really in exile? Is there a valid biblical basis for the recent flurry of “exile” language? And if there is, what are the implications for life and ministry? If the question is asked at a literal level, the answer (for the great majority of us in twenty-first century Australia, at any rate) is of course a straightforward “no”. Most of us, truth be told, live pretty comfortable, settled, suburban lives, in the country that we were born in or chose to adopt as our own. The circumstances of our daily lives could hardly be more different from those endured by people who have been forcibly displaced from homeland and family.

But if we are readers of the New Testament then we will know that exile language can be used metaphorically as well as literally. Occasionally, within the pages of the New Testament, we meet examples of men and women who are exiles in the literal sense of the word – John on the island of Patmos, for example (Rev 1:9), or Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth (Acts 18:2). But in the vast majority of instances where the language or the idea of exile is used within the New Testament, the intended meaning is metaphorical, not literal, and the range of possible meanings that can be carried by the metaphor is quite broad.

If the question about twenty-first-century Australian Christians is asked with that broader, metaphorical range of meanings in mind, then the answer could variously be “No longer,” “For a little while more,” and “Probably somewhat more than we’re used to.”

“No longer”

Because the Babylonian exile endured by the people of Judah in the Old Testament was a fate that came upon them as a punishment for their sins (in fulfilment of the curses of the law and the warnings of the prophets), the image of exile is frequently used in the New Testament as a picture of alienation and estrangement from God. For Gentile believers, the situation of the Babylonian exiles, “far away” from home and from God, is a powerful metaphor for life before they came to know Jesus. “Once,” Paul reminds the Ephesians, “you were far away” but now you have been “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13; note also the echo of Isa 57:19 in Eph 2:17).

“For a little while more”

But that is not the whole story: the homecoming accomplished through the saving work of Jesus is one that we experience both now and not yet. Repeatedly, within the pages of the New Testament, believers are encouraged to see themselves as members of a community whose true home is not in this age but in the age to come, citizens of a heavenly city (e.g., Gal 4:25–26; Phil 3:20; Heb 11:13–16; 12:22–24). In this sense of the metaphor, the time of exile is not our past but our present, and the years of this lifetime are the “little while” that we must endure before the time of our true homecoming (cf. 1 Pet 1:17; 5:10). In this sense of the metaphor, Christians are always exiles, whether they realise it or not (and the frequent reminders of this in the New Testament suggest that even in the first century it was not an easy or obvious image to keep in mind).

“Probably somewhat more than we’re used to”

Still more needs to be said, however. Frequently, within the New Testament, the imagery of exile can be used to refer not only to the time the readers live in (waiting for a city that is to come) but also for the circumstances in which they find themselves as they wait. When exile imagery is used with this sense in view, it generally points to the overlapping realities of the readers’ social circumstances, within a culture whose lifestyle and values are alien to the ways that believers have learned in Christ (e.g., 1 Pet 1:17–18; 4:3–4), and their religio-political circumstances, under the rule of an idolatrous and persecuting empire (e.g., 1 Pet 5:13).

“the chances are that the changing circumstances we are entering into will require us to learn new levels of resolve, resistance, generosity and evangelistic courage.”

If the “exile” question is asked with this sense of the metaphor in mind, then the answer must necessarily be a complex one. The cultures and political structures of Christendom have never been a perfect manifestation of the Kingdom of God – far from it! But as the residue of Christendom slowly leaches out of our own cultural values and political arrangements, the chances are that we will increasingly find ourselves learning to live as exiles in this third, social and religio-political sense.

Living as Exiles

If that is the case, then the chances are that in the years ahead we will find ourselves more and more frequently noticing the resonances between the circumstances of the New Testament’s original readers and those in which we live today.

It is striking that the letter in which that sense of the metaphor is most prominent is also one of the places in the New Testament in which the readers are most vigorously and repeatedly warned against withdrawal and disengagement from the communities they live in. Like the exiles addressed in Jeremiah 29 (and the similarities can hardly be accidental) the readers of the letter are to “do good … seek peace and pursue it” (1 Pet 3:11). They are to live “such good lives among the pagans” that the slanders of their enemies are silenced and their neighbours are drawn to worship God (2:12, 15). The “good deeds” that they are repeatedly urged to perform include not only the abstention from evil desires that ought to characterise their private morality (2:11) but also, for those with means to perform them, the kind of public acts of benefaction that might conceivably meet with the governor’s commendation (2:14). Most of all, they are to testify to Jesus, by what they do, what they suffer, and what they say (3:13–17).

Whatever the outcome of the current political upheavals, the chances are that the changing circumstances we are entering into will require us to learn new levels of resolve, resistance, generosity and evangelistic courage. In all likelihood, the years ahead will be years of exile to a greater extent than most of us have been familiar with. The good news is that we’ve been there before, and in the pages of the New Testament (and the Old!) we will find rich resources to equip us for such a time.

David Starling lectures in New Testament at Morling College in Sydney. His doctoral studies were on the use of Old Testament exile imagery in Paul’s letters.